Monday, June 18, 2018

Zhantai

There are films, and very few of them, that take you through an expanse of not only space but time and history, of people's unchanging desires, frustrations, hopes and disillusionments across changing eras, where hair styles change, the choice of music changes, the furniture changes, roads are dug up and relaid and re-dug up, and older businesses go obsolete while newer replace them. Through this never-ending cycle, people evolve but also remain the same at their core, and so does a society, so does a nation. Jia Zhangke's film Zhantai (in'tl title: Platform) matches in scope and surpasses in subtlety Zhang Yimou's To Live when it comes to a study of modern China's history. At the same time, it is a study of youth, a study that persists into their middle-aged years, unlike Hsiao-hsien's The Boys from Fengkuei. And hence, it is a more remarkable film, difficult to make, indicating Zhangke's complete mastery over his subject matter: China and the Chinese. By extension, people.

The beauty of Zhangke's film is in its details, in its precise portrayal of life in northern China. An exquisite camerawork and brilliant, placid camera angles enhance the effect to leave lasting impressions on the viewer, especially on someone who has known China. A still position for the camera, as action happens in its purview, brings a detached style to the film, and yet long shots intersperse to give it the effect of a canvas, not mere documentary. Without it being explicit, to an observant viewer, it is evident that material comforts increase as the linear narrative goes forward, and yet people seem trapped in their suppressed hopes, worn-out habits, and nothing and nowhere to look forward to. For those who have chosen to be on the move in the wide open world, they have had to sacrifice their homes; and for those who have chosen to remain, hopes are pinned on others. Disappointment and adjustment to complacent contentment are often the lot of both. While circumstances shape people's lives, Zhangke achieves the difficult feat of not focussing blame on some ideology or some historical incident in particular: such a story could have happened in any land, regardless of its political system and ideology, whenever youth drift and don't have always much to look forward to.

A special word for actor Jing Dong Liang, who plays the role of dandy-ish Chang Jun exceptionally well.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a film that resonated in the United States as corporate cultures battled with the personal sense of individual freedom, before a growing tech, and resulting start-up, culture has made the film seemingly less relevant today. It would be a mistake though to write off that relevance: while man seems to grow towards freedom, at the same time technology can also give a greater degree of control over individual lives and tastes to corporations and states. It is hence an appropriate time to revisit the film: and not just for what all the long-winded film tackles, but also because it is a fine, fine film, with sterling performances by all of its cast, including Jennifer Jones, who otherwise did not get many roles suited to her personality in her career. While Lee J. Cobb is more remembered for 12 Angry Men, he is even more admirable in this film, though his role is a small one here (but an important one).

The film, broadly speaking, is about suited men: executives. Fredric March plays Ralph Hopkins, the very image of a go-getter big businessman. But March plays a finely nuanced character: he is not all good or all bad, not white or black, and he sometimes has self-pity, not something that one expects in go-getter type of characters when presented on screen. Gregory Peck plays Tom, a man with a conscience and some weight on it as well, a man who was, and is still, honest, but whose character has faced the challenge of being warped by humanity's madness: war, and profit-driven dehumanisation of society. Women, on the other hand, represent non-suited roles: they are not in suits, but they are there to help, love or inspire men. This is typical of Hollywood films in general, even more particularly of the mid-twentieth century, but then it was also the life that was prevalent in the United States in the middle decades of the last century. The film reflects what it sees: and the women's being in non-suited roles brings in its own complications of dependence and insecurity. The supposedly public thus intersects with the personal, and not only adults but also innocent children are ensnared and enmeshed within.

The film is made with great attention and lovingness, one could say: it crosses the usual length of the American films of that era, and it does not shirk from delving deep into the past and into side-stories, just so that a more complete psychological portrait of its characters can emerge. As I said earlier, the cast is very well chosen and does a great job: even Ann Harding, playing Mrs. Hopkins, a very minor role, is impressive, as is Joseph Sweeney, playing an aggressive old man, also probably afflicted by greed. Sweeney's character hints at the larger corruption at hand: greed drives not just big corporations, but even old and poor men of the age. Peck himself, in the lead role, does not disappoint: he plays his stolid Atticus figure, something that seems to come to him naturally. Jennifer Jones, playing not a completely angelic wife, which used to be a staple of Hollywood, is the wise choice for such a role, and the ending scenes of the film are when she shines at her brightest.

A lovely film, its relevance may again grow as the world moves into technology-enabled control and pretense of freedom.